Human Zoos (called "People Shows"), were an important means of bolstering popular racism by connecting it to `scientific racism:' which attempted to tie and legitimatize their views to Darwinism, creating a social Darwinism ideology which tried to ground itself in his scientific discoveries.
One of the earliest-known living zoos, was that of Motecuhzoma, the ninth ruler of Tenochtitlan (Mexico), reigning from 1502 to 1520. He had a collection of animals, which included unusual human beings, such as- dwarves, albinos and hunchbacks.
During the Renaissance, Cosimo de' Medici in the Republic of Florence during the late 14th century developed a large menagerie in the Vatican. In the 16th century, Cardinal Hippolytus Medici had a collection of people of different races as well as exotic animals. He is reported as having a troupe of "Barbarians," which included the Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans.
In 1836, Joice Heth, an African American slave, was displayed by P.T. Barnum. Such exhibitions became common in the `New Imperialism' period, and remained so until the mid-1940s. Carl Hagenbeck, inventor of the modern zoos, exhibited animals beside humans who were considered as "savages."
Following the Spanish-American War which took place between April and August 1898, the United States acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico f, over the issues of the liberation of Cuba.
At the 1904 World's Fair, the organizers brought in many tribal cultures from the Philippines and other territories in what they considered a "parade of evolutionary progress." And though many officials and the public thought that learning about other cultures could be educational, as well as enlightening (given the limited means of travel in that era), many aspects of these human zoos, were steeped in racism, self-superiority, and sideshow-ism. They were showcased and perceived as “permanent wildmen of the world, the races that had been left behind.” Visitors could inspect the "primitives" that represented the counterbalance to "Civilization."
Some of the Philippinean tribes were `invited,' to be displayed at the Fair, while others were `kidnapped,' not knowing where they were going until they arrived in America. The Philippine exhibit was massive and showcased full-size replicas of indigenous living quarters erected to exhibit the inherent backwardness of the Philippine people. The purpose was to highlight both the "civilizing" influence of American rule and the economic potential of the island chains' natural resources on the heels of the Philippine-America War.
The exhibit was under the direction of W J. McGee of the Anthropology Department of the St. Louis World's Fair. McGee's ambitions for the exhibit were to "be exhaustively scientific in his demonstration of the stages of human evolution, as well as contrasting the lowest known cultures with 'its highest culmination.' With certain tribes wearing very little, the exhibit was also extremely popular and "attracted considerable attention." See the Philippine page for for information of the attraction:
The Anthropology Days of the 1904 Olympics, held on August 11 to 12, were a "scientific experiment" wherein a variety of "savages", among them Pygmies, Filipinos, Patagonians and various American Indian tribes, competed in such undignified events as mud fighting and greased-pole climbing. The Anthropology Days were designed to test the "startling rumors and statements that were made in relation to the speed, stamina and strength of each and every particular tribe that was represented," claimed the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1904. The Anthropology Days were seen as a near-total failure. With very little notice, the Department of Exploitation wasn't able to promote it; very few people were there to watch.
Reports from the time note that often the natives were not all that interested in the contests, although the marathon and tug-of-war seemed to capture their attention.
A turning point in both the history of the Olympics and the development of modern anthropology, these games expressed the conflict between the Old World emphasis on culture and New World emphasis on utilitarianism.
For James E. Sullivan, (founder of the Amateur Athletic Union and was also the nation’s recordkeeper-in-chief as the editor of Spalding’s Official Athletic Almanac), however, the games were at least partially successful. They demonstrated that these savages couldn't even play a proper game of tennis, after all. Sullivan considered the natives' failure to beat the Olympic record for the javelin a sure sign of racial inferiority rather than an aversion to an apparatus never before encountered.
The most famous of `savages,' was the Pygmy Ota Benga. Benga- 28 years, was 4 feet 11 inches, and 103 pounds; he was out on a hunt, returningto his camp, Ota found that the Force Publique (a group of thugs working for Belgium government who stole labor and raw materials from the native Africans in the Belgian Congo), murdered his wife and children as well as the rest of the village. Later, Ota was captured and sold into slavery.
Though the exhibition desired 18 Africans, Samuel Verner, (who also bought Benga), only delivered 5.
When Verner arrived a month later after Ota arrived,
he realized the pygmies st the Fair were more prisoners
than performers. Attempts to congregate peacefully in
the forest on Sundays were thwarted by the crowds'
fascination with them, as were attempts to present a
"serious" scientific exhibit.
Indian chief Geronimo (also a part of the living zoo), came
to admire Benga and gave him one of his famous
After the Fair, Ota was brought back to his native
country, but was not received well. Remarried, his
second wife died from a snake bite. Verner took him
back to America where he was on display at the Bronz
Zoological Gardens. On many ocassions, he would be
housed in the same cage as monkeys.
The exhibit was immensely popular and controversial; the black community was outraged. Under threat of legal action, director Dr. William T. Hornaday had Ota Benga leave his cage and circulate around the zoo in a white suit, but he returned to the monkey house to sleep. He was `encouraged,' to shake his hammock like a monkey for the visitors.
The news of the exhibit spread quickly and reached the attention of a number of Black preachers, includong James H. Gordon, Chairman of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes.”
In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity, and with the help of Gordon; within a few days, the Bronx Zoo closed the attraction and Ota Benga was released into the care of African-American churches.
After his park experience, several institutions tried to help him. Tutored by Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, his English improved, and he attended elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg. He later quit school to work in a tobacco factory in the same town.
Ota Benga grew increasingly depressed, hostile, and irrational. He knew that he would never be able to return to his native land; on March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth (which he received in Lynchburg), and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.
The 47-acre site Philippine village, became home to more than 1,000 Filipinos from at least 10 different ethnic groups. The biggest crowd-drawers were the so-called primitive tribes, especially the Igorots; a Tagalog word for "mountain people" and denotes the inhabitants of the mountains of central Luzon. Like the word Moro, Igorot had a derogatory connotation implying backwardness and cultural inferiority. whose appeal lay in their custom of eating dog.
The Igorots ate dog only occasionally, for ceremonial purposes, but during the Fair, they were fed the canines on a daily basis. They were made to butcher dogs, which disrespected their culture. Yet sometimes a small positive can come out of a massive negative. While in St. Louis, many Igorots attended school for the first time. After returning to the Philippines, some made sure their children children and grandchildren received an education.
When word spread that wayward mutts were being roasted in the Igorot village, sensibilities were outraged.
The news and attraction of the Igorots eating dog was an embarresment to the Fair commitee as well as various St. Louis groups. It exacerbated the myth that these people were savages, and objects of inferiority to ridicule.
After the Fair, the Igorots who made the journey took home with them a sense of dislocation and shock that is still recalled with rancor by their descendants.
Unfortunately even today in the Philippines, even though `illegal,' dogs are usually sold at markets while still alive, their front limbs dislocated and tied painfully behind their backs, and a jagged tin can rammed over their jaws to make them easier to handle. All in blatant disregard of a law that carries a minimal penalty which the police do not bother to even try to enforce. Regardless there are many animal abuse prevention groups in the country trying to combat this practice.
My take on the living zoos is of course coming from a 21st mentality. The immediate thought is one of disgust and outrageousness, but again that coming from a reference point of today. Back in 1904, you have to remember that the Civil War happened only 40 years ago, most people did not travel (especially in the rural Midwest), many were non-educated, innocent, or ignorant, knowing little about other countries and civilizations.
The turn of the century, technology-driven mentality seemed to be a perfect vehicle to showcase their civilized `superiority,' by placing mountain people and less advanced peoples on display. They were gawked at, placed in embarrassing positions (forced to play tennis and learn sophisticated dances). At the turn of the century, if you were not accustomed to modern elements, culture, or everyday ways of life that Western civilization took for granted, and you were a darker skin color, you were inferior. They failed to understand that different and primitive, doesn't mean subordinate.
And yet, in a weird way, it might helped some to see, respect, and learn about other cultures. But besides being on display in a `natural' environment, placing these people on tennis courts to gawk at their ignorance was criminal, demeaning and diminished the alleged education value of the `display.' How about they evened the field and competed against the mostly white athletes in hunting?
And if you look at Geronimo. The captive Indian chief was on display. But unlike the `primatives' from halfway across the world, the lengardy chief was asked by the President of the United States, and he also made more money than any other time in his life.
I guess if the Moros or the Igorats were paid to simulate their naturl habits, I would see this as less harsh, but with simple exploitation which bordered on slavery, in after-thought, this was a low point of the St. Louis Fair.
The 1904 World's Fair wasn't the only fair or world's fair, that displayed people, but that didn't make it acceptable. It was a bleeemish on what was the greatest Fair that ever was.